J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji

Class distinctions could be profoundly unfair during the Edo era, but sometimes they cut both ways. Cut is indeed the correct operative word in this socially conscious samurai film. A poor but honorable samurai and his faithful servants become increasingly aware of the injustices of the world as the make their way to the capitol in Tomu Uchida’s slightly misleadingly titled Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, which screens as part of MoMA’s revelatory retrospective of the major Japanese auteur, who remains bizarrely under-screened in the West.

Sakawa Kojūrō is a good man and a good samurai, but not when he drinks. Therefore, his servants, Genpachi the lancer and Genta the more conventional manservant are under strict orders to keep him away from the sake. As they travel to Edo to offer tribute to their lord, they fall in with an itinerant shamisen player and her young daughter. The orphaned Jirō also takes a shine to Genpachi. In fact, the first two acts have a vibe weirdly reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, as Kojūrō and his servants re-encounter many of the same fellow travelers (to use an unfortunate term) at every inn along their route.

In this case, familiarity largely breeds respect and affection, especially from the samurai, who will bitterly reproach himself for his inability to aid them in times of tribulation. However, his own egalitarian conduct with his servants will attract the wrong sort of attention from his fellow samurai.

Bloody Spear represented Uchida’s return to the Japanese studio system after spending over a decade making movies in Manchuria, so he had to call in favors with one-time contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu to act as production advisors. In fact, there is an intimacy and a sensitivity to Bloody Spear not unlike that of their domestic dramas. Of course, that spear will eventually get bloody—and when it does, the film gets massively heavy.

Resembling today’s Kôji Yakusho, Chiezō Kataoka is all kinds of hardnosed middle-aged steeliness as Genpachi. He has the gravitas and the hack-and-slash chops, but he also develops rather sweetly tender chemistry with Chizuru Kitagawa as the shamisen player and Motoharu Ueki’s Jirō. Daisuke Katō quite effectively counterbalances Kataoka as Genta, who initially seems to be the typical Falstaffian servant but slowly reveals himself to be a considerably deeper, more complex figure. Plus, Ryunsuke Tsukigata really kicks viewers’ legs out from under them as the mysterious Tōzaburō, whose secret really elevates Bloody Spear to the level of high tragedy.

Bloody Spear is just a terrific film that combines the sort of outrage at injustice that marked Reginald Rose’s early work with an affectionate needling of the common folks’ foibles, all within the Jidaigeki format. There is a lot of life happening on the road to Edo—and Uchida takes in quite a bit of it. Very highly recommended for fans of classic cinema of any variety, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji screens again Thursday (11/3) as part of the Tomu Uchida retrospective now underway at MoMA.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

KAFFNY ’16: Retriever (short)

This year, the Federal government nearly reinstituted funding for horse beef inspections, but opponents prevailed in the eleventh hour. As a result, the lucrative Canadian and Mexican horse slaughtering concerns will carry on without American competition. Everyone likes Mr. Ed, but the horse beef for human consumption does not hit most Americans on the same visceral level as dog meat. Many Koreans feel the same way, but there is still a tradition of dog cuisine that some in the older generation still cling to. Obviously, opinion is mixed, but nobody is more conflicted on the issue than Lee Kwang, the homeless protagonist of Kim Joo-hwan’s short film Retriever, which screens during the 2016 Third Culture Korean American Film Festival New York (Brooklyn).

Lee is a despised and marginalized Chosonjok immigrant, an ethnic Korean from China. You could say he eats thanks to dog meat cuisine, but he does not partake himself. Every few months, Lee snatch-and-grabs a rescued stray from a provincial pound to sell to a back-alley dog butcher. He assumes a big golden retriever like Bori will fetch a nice price, but when his regular buyer lowballs him, Lee keeps him out of spite. Much to his surprise, Leee quickly bonds with Bori. He even works off the cost of vet bills when the dog gets sick through his own negligence. However, parents and dog lovers should be strongly cautioned—viewers should absolutely not get too attached to Bori.

Let’s just say Retriever is not The Lady and the Tramp or Lassie—think more along the lines of Old Yeller, but even darker. We will see how dodgy-borderline legal dog butchers go about their business and it is even more brutal than halal slaughter. This is definitely a film that stakes out a clear position in Korea’s ongoing dog meat debate. Yet, it has just as much or more to say about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Moon Sun-yong is pretty darn devastating as the desperate and degraded Lee, forcing the empathy out of even the most guarded viewers. Of course, it is really and truly Max and Joon, appearing in tandem as Bori, who lower the emotional boom, just like W.C. Fields could have told you. The melancholy vibe is even further enhanced by the classically moody cinematography of Nils Clauss and Jung Jin-ho’s pensive light-chamber music score.

Retriever wears its heart conspicuously on its sleeve without shame or reservations. However, it is also an undeniably accomplished film. The quality on-screen is plainly evident to see, but it is still apt to ruin a lot of viewers’ days. If you like your films bittersweet with an emphasis on bitter than you will love Retriever when it screens this afternoon (10/22) with the feature Empty Space, at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn—and remember you can get 15% off tickets with the “jbpins” promo code.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Zombies: The Title Says It All

Arguably, a prison cell is a worse place to find oneself than a hospital bed during the initial days of a zombie apocalypse. Fortunately, one of the surviving detectives realizes killings that landed Luke behind bars were not really killings. Yes, it all looks and sounds familiar, but at least the energy level is cranked up throughout Hamid Torabpour’s Zombies (trailer here), which opens today in select theaters.

Eventually, Luke and Det. Sommers fight their way out of the station, holing up in a shelter with a rag-tag band of survivors. Luke becomes their best scout and forager, regularly venturing out in search of more survivors. He is particularly keen to find his girlfriend Bena, since she is played by former America’s Next Top Model contestant Raina Hein. However, it will be Bena and her surly pal Tala who find Luke when he most needs help. This is quite a small town. He had just encountered Haley, another former girlfriend (or something), who has suffered a nasty psychotic break. Rather bizarrely, she seems to have some sort of symbiotic bond with the shuffling hordes, which allows her to lure unsuspecting survivors to their deaths.

Right, the rather generically titled Zombies could be described as three parts Walking Dead and one part Wyrmwood. Perhaps Torabpour recognized the Haley sub-plot does not make much sense, because he chokes it off relatively early in the second act. Regardless, he delivers some bounteous helpings of hack-and-blast zombie killing action. To give a feel for where the film is coming from, everyone basically admits the big climatic zombie battle involves a crazy plan and it’s probably avoidable in the first place, but they are going to do it anyway, because why not?

Why not indeed? Zombies are nowhere near as gripping or inventive as Train to Busan, the breakout zombie hit of the year. However, it delivers the raw meat. It is also cool to see horror legend Tony Todd playing a good guy, the world weary Det. Sommers. Steven Luke is respectably hardnosed as his namesake, while Hein shows some solid action chops as Bena.

This is basically a meat-and-potatoes zombie film that could become a sentimental fan favorite over time. There is nothing spectacularly original about it, but it aims to please. Recommended for zombie buffs, Zombies opens today in select markets.

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King Cobra: True Crime Gets Deadly Dull

It is supposedly a crime drama based on Andrew E. Stoner & Peter A. Conway’s nonfiction book Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice, but it only takes the cops about thirty seconds to arrest the perps. Maybe the term “manhunt” is used euphemistically. Despite the intentionally lurid subject matter, you will be hard-pressed to find a duller, dingier, more vacuous film than Justin Kelly’s King Cobra (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In the early 2000s, apparently anyone with a digital camera and a website could become a player in the gay porn industry. For Stephen, his nocturnal side light as producer-host “King Cobra” was the only relief from a life of quiet desperation. He was already moderately successful when he recruited seventeen-year-old Sean Paul Lockhart (mistakenly believing him to be eighteen), but the videos the performer shot under the name “Brent Corrigan” took his company to a whole new level. For a while, everyone enjoys their success, but when Lockhart decides to leave King Cobra, he discovers the spurned producer holds the trademark on the Brent Corrigan name.

Meanwhile, escorts and self-styled pornstars Harlow and Joe really want to work with Corrigan. Deep in debt, they are convinced a video co-starring Corrigan and Harlow will solve all their problems. Of course, it has to be Lockhart under the Corrigan name. He is willing, but King Cobra is not.

One of the many problems with King Cobra is the murder and the subsequent investigation are compressed into the final ten minutes. The overwhelming majority of the film is devoted to Lockhart’s hopes and dreams and angsts and insecurities of the killers. Frankly, this material couldn’t sustain a fifteen minute short. Clearly, Kelly hopes we will be distracted by the naughty business, but it quickly gets boring (particularly if it doesn’t float your boat to begin with).

How mind-blowing is it to see Alicia Silverstone playing Lockhart’s mom?  Actually, she is not bad—maybe the best thing about Cobra. To be fair, Christian Slater is also very good playing the profoundly sad Stephen (the King), but the film’s general crumminess is in keeping with the recent underwhelming additions to his filmography, such as The Adderall Diaries (another utterly unwatchable James Franco joint), Stranded, and Playback. Franco probably considered Joe the Psycho to be another opportunity to display his gay-friendliness, but it is an awfully schticky, perilously clichéd character. At least we notice him, whereas neither Garrett Clayton nor Keegan Allen have any presence or depth as Lockhart/Corrigan or Harlow.

To reiterate, the real problem with the film is not the subject matter. It is just an unforgivable snore fest. Arguably, it takes unique talent to make pornography and murder boring as Hell, but somehow Kelly pulled it off. He even squanders 1980s icon Molly Ringwald in an entirely inconsequential role. Tedious yet still sleazy, King Cobra is not recommended for anyone when it opens today (10/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil—Back to the Board

Ouija boards must be the most controversial and feared item found in typical toy stores. It makes you wonder why Hasbro still makes them. Maybe it is the hundreds of thousands of units they sell each year with virtual no marketing expenditure, but we’re just guessing here. They even licensed the brand for a horror film as part of their studio development deal. Did the story end with 2014’s Ouija? Who knows, but we can hope. Instead, it is time to flashback to when it all began in Mike Flanagan’s considerably superior prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil (trailer here), a Blumhouse production, which opens today nationwide.

It is 1965, eight years before The Exorcist scared the pants off everyone and made Ouija boards synonymous sulfur-spewing Hell. When Alice Zander decides to incorporate a board into her phony spiritualist act, it doesn’t set off any alarm bells. She is a bit of a scam artist, but she really tries to give her clients the sort of consolation and closure she herself lacks. It has been a year or so since her husband Roger died in an accident, but her teenage daughter Lina and ten-ish-year-old daughter Doris are not even close to being over it. The Ouija board will not help.

It turns out there is an evil entity in the house, which uses the board as a catalyst to possess little Doris. It will take Mother Zander a while to accept the obvious, preferring to think the Ouija board really has brought her into contact with her late husband. However, Lina recognizes the weirdness of Doris’s Regan MacNeil behavior, which will be confirmed by her kindly Catholic school teacher, Father Tom.

Ironically, Origin is far better than the original film, but it is unfairly restricted by the previously established backstory. Flanagan is a considered an up-and-coming genre director who definitely shows some chops here. Most tellingly, the film carries a (mild by genre standards) PG-13 rating, yet Flanagan still earns some legit scares. In fact, the 1960s period look and vibe actually makes it feel more real and grounded. Like Blatty’s The Exorcist, Origin also wears its Catholic perspective on its sleeve. Terms like evil and innocence have very real meaning it this film.

To that end, Henry Thomas (yes, the kid from E.T.) is terrific as Father Tom. The scenes of his initial investigation represent some first class horror movie-making. Yet, the third act inevitably collapses into a blur of bodies flying through the air, just as we expected it would. Not to overstate matters, but there is a tragic poignancy to Elizabeth Reaser’s portrayal of Alice Zander. Lulu Wilson is also Bad Seed creepy as the possessed, mucus-gurgling, eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-her-head Doris. Frankly, Annalise Basso mostly comes off as an obnoxious teen, but that is pretty much what Lina Zander is. Hardcore fans will also get a kick out of knowing Doug Jones is the one beneath the black ghoul’s make-up and special effects.

Production designer Patricio M. Farrell painstakingly recreates the miserable not-so-swinging, polyester sixties and cinematographer Michael Fimognari gives it all an eerie Conjuring­-esque glow. Given the origins of Origin, it certainly exceeds expectations. Despite the baggage straining the third act, it is an expertly-executed exercise in Catholic-influenced demonic horror. Worth a look for horror fans who can appreciate a good set-up and forgive the lame ending, Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in wide release today (10/21), including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Autumn Lights: Love and Depression in Iceland

Iceland gets over a quarter of its electricity from geothermal plants, so you might think it would be the perfect setting for a steamy, hothouse mystery. It still might be so, assuming future filmmakers do not forget to include the mystery part. Viewers will have to make do with the angst and sex of Angad Aulakh’s Autumn Lights (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

David planned to spend the summer with his lover Eva, while he worked on a nature photography assignment on a remote Icelandic island, but she threw a spanner in the works by dumping him. To make things even more depressing, he finds an apparent suicide victim while walking on the beach the next day. Now he won’t be able to leave until the fussbudget local cops finish their investigation. However, this does not seem so depressing when he meets Marie, the hot-blooded Italian wife of the painfully Nordic Jóhann.

For a while, David concentrates on Marie’s super-blonde Icelandic BFF Liv, but he knows Marie is compulsively inclined towards infidelity. When they finally give into temptation, he starts getting rather possessive, which is downright tacky under the circumstances.

Poor old Jóhann happens to be a hunter. In terms of narrative, this is a rather inconsequential detail, but it allows Aulakh to shoot enough scenes of him holding a rifle to make the trailer look deceptively thrillerish. Honestly, by the time the film loops back around to the suicide investigation, it has become a completely anticlimactic tangent.

Instead, we get to watch David walk through a veritable land of ECM record jackets, brooding and taking pictures. It may very well be largely a function of the film’s Ikea ambience, but Guy Kent (resembling a poor man’s Eric Balfour) just doesn’t connect as David. Lusty and impish, Marta Gastini at least makes an impression as Marie. Frankly, Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson deserves mucho credit for almost redeeming the film with his slow-burning, tightly-controlled turn as Jóhann—almost, but not quite.

A film this sexually preoccupied should never be so deathly dull. Iceland’s coastline looks pristine and invigorating, but Aulakh’s script is muddled and tired. Safely skippable, Autumn Lights opens tomorrow (10/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


German Currents ’16: Fukushima, Mon Amour

Technically, the former Fukushima disaster area is now considered safe for human occupation, but unlike the still off limits Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, older residents have been much more reluctant to recolonize. At least that is how it looks to the worst German expatriate clown in Japan. Much to her own surprise, she feels compelled to help Fukushima’s last geisha return to her home in Doris Dörrie’s Fukushima, Mon Amour (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 German Currents in Los Angeles.

Reeling from a wedding jilting, Marie has volunteered for the NGO Clowns4Help to bring some joy into the lives of elderly disaster survivors. It was not a well thought-out decision. Frankly, she is not a very good clown and probably an even worse human being. Just when she is about to slink off in disgrace, Satomi convinces the expat to drive her to her now dilapidated house in Fukushima. When Marie realizes Satomi isn’t leaving, she more or less decides to stay as well.

The tall German is relatively helpful when it comes to clearing rubble, but she eats a lot. More troubling, her misery acts like a magnet for all the local ghosts. Rather awkwardly for Satomi, this includes her late pupil Yuki, whose death remains a profound source of guilt and angst for the geisha.

Mon Amour is very definitely about the figurative and literal ghosts haunting Japan, but it also has a gently absurdist sense of humor. Frankly, giving Marie charm school lessons in the middle of the scarred wasteland really doesn’t seem so outlandish when you are caught up in the moment. After all, they have to do something to pass the time.

Kaori Momoi gives an Oscar caliber performance as Satomi. She is an ageless beauty, but also a forceful, no b.s. presence (if you doubt it, watch her steal the show in Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django). Yet, she also vividly and directly conveys all of Momoi’s pain and remorse, while delivering some surprisingly tart one-liners. She and the gawky Rosalie Thomass make an effective odd couple pairing, but it is an unequal partnership.

Nanoko’s Yuki is disconcertingly beautiful and unsettling, duly following the grandly tragic tradition of Japanese movie ghosts. Honsho Hayasaka also adds healthy servings of humility and attitude as Jushoku, the sake-pounding Buddhist monk who is just starting to feel again. (FYI, it is good to know they have regularly serviced sake vending machines conveniently located throughout Japan.) Clowns with Borders founder Moshe Cohen and musician Nami Kamata merit shout-outs as well for being good sports. Essentially playing themselves, they deserve better help than Marie.

Hanno Lentz’s absolutely arresting black-and-white cinematography perfectly captures the barren, surreal-in-real-life post-3/11 landscape. This is an elegant, finely tuned film that ought to be playing at more of the Fall film festivals, especially given Dörrie’s considerable international reputation. Very highly recommended, Fukushima, Mon Amour screens tomorrow (10/21) at the Egyptian Theatre, as part of this year’s German Currents.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden

Domestic service is a full-contact, no-holds-barred endeavor in Korean cinema. It goes back to 1960, when the title character terrorized a middle-class respectability-craving family in Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. In 2010, Im Sang-soo turned the tables in favor of the wealthy elite with his in-name-only remake. Now we journey back to occupied 1930 Korea, where a rigid class system is still very much intact. However, viewers should make no assumptions regarding who has the upper hand in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sook-hee adapted rather well when she was adopted into an Oliver Twistian family of pickpockets and con artists, so she readily agrees when “Count Fujiwara,” a fake Japanese nobleman, recruits her for a caper. She will go undercover as the cloistered Lady Hideko’s latest maid. After gaining her Lady’s trust, Sook-hee will help Fujiwara seduce and marry her, so he can abscond with her inheritance after committing her to an insane asylum. Yet, much to the surprise of both women, a romantic attraction slowly boils over between them. In fact, Sook-hee considers warning Lady Hideko about her eventual fiancé’s intentions, until she suddenly finds herself committed to the asylum in Hideko’s place.

Furious at their betrayal, Sook-hee vows to avenge herself on her lover and her accomplice. End of part one. There will be two more parts, each featuring plenty of further curve balls. Part two backs up, establishing Lady Hideko’s backstory and showing us the key events of Sook-hee’s downfall from her perspective. By the time we get to part three, all bets are off.

It is fair to say Handmaiden is inspired by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Part one tracks pretty closely with the source novel, but parts two and three are almost entirely the creation of Park and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung. The twists and counter-twists come faster than the double- and triple-crosses, which makes it all greatly entertaining.

Yet, perhaps the most shocking thing about Handmaiden (especially as a Korean film) is its sexual explicitness. At times, it resembles Blue is the Warmest Color, but with a plot—in this case, one cribbed from Dangerous Liaisons and The Sting. This film will often leave you slack-jawed, but for very different reasons.

Nationwide talent search discovery Kim Tae-ri is indeed quite the find as Sook-hee. She is all kinds of intense, in all the ways you might imagine. Kim Min-hee perfectly counter-balances her with her commanding ice queen presence (when she thaws, the film gets steamy enough to scald the skin). Ha Jung-woo continues to display remarkable range and flexibility, this time around oozing sleaze from every pore as the caddish Fujiwara.

Depending on how you look at it, The Handmaiden is deliciously fun, in spite of, or on top of (so to speak) the extended love-making scenes. This is definitely one of those “you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet” kind of films. It is also a lush, gorgeous spectacle, thanks to the exquisitely crafted period sets and trappings, as well as Chung Chung-hoon’s rich, painterly cinematography. This is a sweeping, gauntlet-spiking statement from a bold auteur, but it is also a rip-roaring example of storytelling. Very highly recommended for mature audiences, The Handmaiden opens this Friday (10/21) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Celebrates its 30th

In its day, it was so controversial, even its poster was banned. It provided the impetus for the supposedly respectable NC-17 rating, along with Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up!  Tie Me Down and Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, but it was eventually released without an MPAA rating. The time is definitely ripe for a cultural reappraisal on what arguably represents its thirtieth anniversary, depending whether you count its 1986 festival premiere or the long deferred 1990 theatrical release. Freshly restored yet as gritty and grubby as ever, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (trailer here) returns to the big screen this Friday in New York.

Henry is intentionally and transparently modeled on the inflated confessions of real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, but not necessarily on the cold hard facts of his case. McNaughton’s Henry is staggeringly prolific, yet he remains off law enforcement’s radar because he always switches up his methods of killing and he constantly stays on the move. Uncharacteristically, Henry will stay a spell in Chicago with his former cellmate Otis. As luck would have it, Otis’s recently separated sister Becky also moves back in around the same time. She immediately takes a shine to the polite Henry, presumably because her brother and husband are such pond scum.

As Otis’s resentments and failures pile up, Henry takes him under his wing, teaching his protégé a sure fire way to blow off steam. Yet, much to his surprise, Henry also develops something like fondness for Becky. Of course, that won’t stop him from taking more victims.

When it first hit the public consciousness, Henry was largely considered the most violent movie ever. However, time has passed and the culture has evolved. Subsequently, the Saw and Hostel franchises have been released into the world, along with the films of Rob Zombie and the outré shocker of all time, A Serbian Film. Frankly, through our contemporary eyes, Henry looks almost restrained.

It still has the power to shock, but arguably the scenes that depict the aftermath rather than the actual violence per se, are far more disturbing. Early in the film, McNaughton shows us a series of Henry’s crime scenes, with his victims looking carefully and cruelly posed. Likewise, the ending is still a kick in the teeth, because it so dashes any hopes we might have for human nature.

Michael Rooker gives a bravura, career-defining performance as Henry. He is so potently nerve-jangling, precisely because of his restraint. Granted, his Henry obviously has intimacy issues, but he is surprisingly sociable. When he is on the prowl, his ruthlessness is icily chilling. However, he also develops some highly ambiguous chemistry with Tracy Arnold’s Becky. Together, they keep viewers completely off-balance and way outside their comfort zones.

Without Henry, fans probably wouldn’t have the Walking Dead’s Merle Dixon, at least not as they came to know him through Rooker. In terms of color palate and imagery, it looks like it could be a Herschell Gordon Lewis grindhouse flick, but it is a much more challenging examination of sadism and sociopathy. Bracing but never exploitative in the strictest sense, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film all cult cinema connoisseurs should be familiar with. Recommended for mature cineastes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer screens this Friday and Saturday (10/21, 10/22) in New York, around midnight at the Landmark Sunshine.

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KAFFNY ’16: The Luncheon on the Grass (short)

Listening to this quartet of amateur criminals is sort of like Rashomon, except instead of four different perspectives, we get eight. It will be up to a professional fixer-cleaner much like Winston Wolfe in Pulp Fiction to tidy up their mess and decide where the truth lies in Hyunyong Park’s short film, The Luncheon on the Grass, which screens during the 2016 Third Culture Korean American Film Festival New York (in Brooklyn).

The young kidnapping victim is now dead, but Luncheon is a comedy, so deal with it. Apparently, he grabbed a knife and killed himself. In fact, that is the only point where their stories agree. With the arrival of the cleaner (a referral from a more connected acquaintance), each tries to convince the outsider of their limited culpability for boy’s death. To “get their stories straight,” the underworld specialist has them re-enact the crime, with the still fresh corpse. However, this leads to more bickering and less clarity. Things get so heated, they almost forget they ordered Chinese. Settling down to eat, they inadvertently recreate Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, a reproduction of which hangs on the wall of the apartment in question. Then suddenly, their motivation shifts, as do their stories, in tandem.

Luncheon has some wonderfully flawed and damaged characters, including a scandal-tarred university professor and an aspiring actress coveting Botox sessions. It is a bit disappointing that they were brought together by their clay-footed priest, but at least Park buoys us with some razor sharp dialogue and darkly absurdist humor.

Hip viewers might guess the final twist, but the real point to Luncheon is the verbal steel cage battle royale and the resulting narrative confusion. Sly and subversively pointed, it must be one of the funniest about a dead child you will see all year (or so let’s hope). Highly recommended for viewers with a pitch black sense of humor, The Luncheon on the Grass screens this Friday (10/21) as part of the Shorts Two program at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn—and remember you can get 15% off tickets with the “jbpins” promo code.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ti West’s In the Valley of Violence

Now its proximity to the Mexican border only gives it a comparative advantage in crime and exploitation. All the decent folk have long since left, but the stranger who rides into town is no choirboy. He is not looking for trouble, but it finds him nonetheless in Ti West’s In the Valley of Violence (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

His name is Paul, but he is the sort of gunslinger who often has no name. The Mexico-bound former cavalry man has deserted due to his mounting revulsion for the so-called “Indian campaigns.” We can tell by looking at him he was disgusted by the killing, precisely because he was so darned good at it. However, Gilly, the ringleader of the local Denton ne’er-do-wells is not so fast on the uptake. As the town Marshal’s deadbeat son, he can usually get away with his bullying behavior, but Paul is an entirely different sort of cat, just like his assertive dog Jumpy.

Like night follows day, Gilly challenges Paul when he reluctantly stops for supplies. Paul might have let things slide had the entitled thug not threatened his dog. When Paul duly shows him up, the chagrined marshal rather apologetically runs him out of town, to preserve public order. At that point, the deserter and the lawman would be fine letting matters stand, but not Gilly. Of course, he and his entourage lay a trap for Paul, but they only succeed in killing Jumpy. We know what that means—and so does West, who delivers Charles Bronson levels of vicarious payback.

Who knew Ethan Hawke had so much Eastwood in him? Granted, it is more of the tortured Josey Wales Eastwood, but it definitely still counts. He instantly projects a sense of a man well acquainted with death, while delivering West’s frequently droll dialogue with wry understatement. He also forges some terrific (albeit slightly problematic) ambiguous romantic chemistry with Taissa Farmiga, as Mary Anne the younger and more naïve of the two sisters operating the town’s high vacancy hotel.

Yet, the real scene stealer is none other than John Travolta, who gleefully gnaws the scenery even as his character struggles to be the voice of reason. Travolta been grinding out a spate of VOD-theatrical day-and-date B-movies, but Valley gives us reason to hope he might just have yet another comeback in him. As an extra added bonus for cult movie fans, West’s frequent co-conspirator Larry Fessenden does his thing playing one of Gilly’s ill-fated cronies.

Although The Sacrament was billed as a departure for West, the Jonestown-inspired found footage thriller was not really so far removed from the horror field. Granted, there is a spot of blood here and there in Valley, but it is a western through and through. Clearly, West has some affection for this genre too, at least as it was realized in Italian productions. He stages some nifty gun fights and pens some razor-sharp, attitude-drenched dialogue. It is a retro blast with uber-modern sensibility. Very highly recommended for a wide spectrum of genre fans, In a Valley of Violence opens this Friday (10/21) in New York, at the Village East.

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Stuff MX ’16: Keep Going (short)

Margo is the sort of post-apocalyptic android Johnny Cash would appreciate. His name is not an accident. It is a conscious way of differentiating his protective new role from his destructive past. Margo’s retrofit makes him more than Yeon-hee’s guardian. He is also her external pacemaker. Unfortunately, the world is not inclined to appreciate their bond, but things might be better on the other side of the border. However, safely crossing it will be a real trick in Kim Geon’s pedal-to-the-metal sf short film, Keep Going (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Stuff MX Film Festival, south of the border.

Humanity was nearly annihilated during the last planet-wide war, thanks to the use of battle robots like Margo. Of course, it really wasn’t their fault. Nonetheless, after the armistice, a large luddite contention decided to merely switch their armed hostilities towards all things robotic. The large anti-robot contingent dug in near the border will not care about Margo’s life-sustaining function. If he and Yeon-hee hope to continue their trek, they will have to fight their way through.

Somehow, Kim packs an awful lot of genre filmmaking into a mere twenty minutes. As an action film, Keep Going is as good or better than any feature released this year. In addition to the spectacular centerpiece shootout, Kim economically creates a convincingly detailed near future world. Margo’s robotic features are particularly spot-on, combining hard steel with worn edges, while conveying the sense of something like a conscious imprinted on his circuit board.

Choi Bae-young portrays Yeon-hee with tremendous sensitivity and vulnerability, even while she is kicking butt. Likewise, even though Lee Tae-young is buried beneath the Margo helmet, he is still giving a real performance through his body language and action chops.

Any way you break it down, Keep Going represents massively impressive indie genre filmmaking. It is easy to see how the short film could be expanded into a full epic feature. In fact, there is a graphic novella prequel posted on the film’s Facebook page that explains how Margo became Yeon-hee’s protector. However, there is indeed dramatic logic to the place where Kim choses to conclude the short. Regardless, anyone who enjoys films with whizzing projectile action and human-robotic relationships will flip for Keep Going. Very highly recommended, it screens this Thursday (10/20) as part of the Stuff MX Film Fest.

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Vampyres: Remaking the Vampire Exploitation Cult Favorite

Based on vampire lore, death need not curb your sex drive. In fact, most post Lugosi vampires are downright voracious—especially the lesbians. At least, that is how filmmaker-dudes like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco envisioned them. Joseph [José Ramón] Larraz also contributed to the softcore Sapphic blood-sucking tradition with the 1974 cult classic Vampyres. It wasn’t exactly a complicated narrative, but Victor Matellano remade it anyway. Faithful to the original, Matellano’s English language Vampyres (trailer here) releases today on DVD and VOD.

Fran and Miriam are your classic lesbian vampires, who lure horny male victims to the gothic abode for a night of hedonism and feeding. Harriet assumes several of her friends are just running late for their camping trip, but the vampy vamps have already picked them off. Not exactly proactive, she and her other two grudgingly platonic pals will just wait around for someone to find them.

It turns out they will have a ridiculously long wait. Fran has just picked up Ted playing the lost, waifish hitchhiker. However, the young Brian Dennehy-looking fellow is apparently her type. Instead of dispatching immediately as per their standard procedure, she keeps him alive in a sex-stoked, blood-drained haze. Meanwhile, Matellano periodically checks back in at the inn where Ted spent the night, just so he could cast British horror icon Caroline Munro in meaninglessly tangential scenes.

There is plenty of sex and nudity in the re-upped Vampyres as well as a good deal of blood-letting, so Matellano covers all the mandatory bases. However, it is nowhere near as successful creating an atmosphere of mystery or critiquing gender roles as the thematically similar Blood of the Tribades. Frankly, the remake just sort of looks cheap, which is a bit of an unfair criticism given its severe budget constraints, but it is still fair to point out the original looks better, even though it was produced under similar circumstances.

Vampyres is not exactly an actors’ workshop either, but Marta Flich’s potent presence gives us a hint of the sort of lushly indulgent guilty pleasure could have (and should have) been. There is also something weirdly compelling about Christian Stamm’s half-delirious dad-bodded Ted. To her credit, Munro manages to almost convince us she isn’t completely bored as the hotelier, because she is a total professional.

Spelling “vampyre” or “womyn” with a Y always seems perversely contradictory, since the whole intention is to convey the lack of a Y chromosome, but so be it. While we’re in a pedantic frame of mind, it also seems rather negligent for a vampyre couple to have a loaded crossbow affixed to their wall, like some kind of decorative object. At least we cannot accuse it of being “Chekhov’s Crossbow,” because it will be used eventually. If you are in the mood for a lesbian vampire film, the 1974 original or either version of Embrace of the Vampire will probably better satisfy. However, if this is your thing then have at it, when Vampyres releases today (10/18) on DVD and VOD, from Artsploitation.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

KAFFNY ’16: Time Agent (short)

For his line of work, being aloof and anti-social is actually a prime qualification. He has come from the future to subtly undermine the relationships the parents of future mass murderers, forcing them to break up before they tragically procreate. Of course, it is imperative he not interact with others while he is secretly living in our current time-span. Ordinarily that is not a problem, but one mistake leads to complications even he could not foresee in Jude Chun’s short film The Time Agent, which screens during the 2016 Third Culture Korean American Film Festival New York.

To break-up currently happily married couples due to have monstrous children, he mostly does little things, like leaving the toilet seat up. It is not just one thing—it is the cumulative effect that really matters. Frankly, these scenes are rather disturbingly convincing. However, while walking home from a day of minor mischief making, the Agent interrupts a possible suicide on the bridge. Rather annoyed by his squirrely behavior, Moon Yeesul decides not to jump.

Did he just change the future? To limit the potential damage, the Agent invites her to stay in his Spartan flat while he investigates what her previous future fate. Yet, much to his surprise, he quickly finds he quite enjoys her company.

Much like Richie Mehta’s I’ll Follow You Down, Time Agent focuses more on the emotional implications of time travel than special effects or huge history-altering time ripples. Frankly, it turns out to be shockingly poignant, bringing together two lost lonely souls, while dangling a Damocles Sword over their ambiguously budding relationship.

Essentially a two-hander, Time Agent features two extraordinarily subtle and agonizingly restrained performances from Choi Gwui-woong as the Agent and Jeon Young-hee as Moon. You will be hard pressed to see better work in any recent science fiction feature.

Chun helms the terrific duo with a remarkably sensitive touch. However, his conception of time travel also gives viewers food for thought. Tonally and thematically, it is sort of like a cross between Paris, Texas and Doctor Who, which you do not see too often. Highly recommended, Time Agent screens this Friday (10/21) as part of the Shorts Two program at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn—and remember you can get 15% off tickets with the “jbpins” promo code.

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Spurlock’s Horror Doc: Rats

We’re at war and we’re losing badly. In this case, we’re not talking about ISIS (although the same is true of them). Humanity is locked in a death-struggle with rats and the rodents have out-matched us every step of the way. Everything about the dirty critters are worse than you thought according to the experts in Morgan Spurlock’s horror movie-documentary Rats (trailer here), which premieres on the Discovery Channel this Saturday.

Apparently, today’s rats have evolved and mutated even more than the X-Men, leaving them increasingly immune to most rodenticides. Scientists know for a fact they are bigger, stronger, and more adaptable than they were a century ago, because they have the rat archives to prove it.

In contrast to most of his films, the ordinarily not so camera-shy Spurlock never appears in Rats, possibly because he was so creeped out. Instead, the face of the film will be cigar-chomping exterminator Ed Sheehan, who is New York to the bone. In between Spurlock’s globe-trotting segments, Sheehan tells us straight up we are fighting a losing battle against the vermin, even though he has been well payed for waging it.

Spurlock takes us to New York City Hall, where the two-legged rats plan this year’s campaign against the four-legged variety. He also tags along on a walking inspection tour with City health inspectors, who point out the telltale signs we would otherwise overlook. There are plenty of unsettling shots of rats gorging on garbage, but it is even more disturbing to see what gets pulled out of them during autopsies. They carry more than just the Plague, but that is very definitely still a concern, along with Zika and Ebola.

In a way, Spurlock allows time for contrary opinions, showing viewers how live rats are harvested in Cambodian fields and shipped to Vietnamese restaurants, where they become real deal menu items (who knows, maybe they taste like pumpkin pie). However, these sequences might be the most disturbing. However, for sheer spectacle, it is tough to beat the site of specially trained terriers gong to town on an English rat colony. (Apparently, the New York rat problem has gotten so bad under de Blasio, one downtown neighborhood association started their own terrier patrols).

Often the tone of Rats is reminiscent of The Hellstrom Chronicle, which is only too appropriate. Spurlock delivers the gross-out goods, but the film is still quite informative, as one would expect from the Discovery Channel’s imprimatur. Frankly, this is probably the most watchable film he has ever directed. Somehow Rats manages to be disgusting, alarming, and perversely fun. Highly recommended for inquiring minds, it airs this Saturday night (10/22) on the Discovery Channel.

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Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

We call any old instant noodles ramen here in the West, but in Japan, there are very definite rules as to what constitutes ramen and how it should be prepared. It is a deceptively simple but nourishing dish, like many great Japanese films. When it released in 1985, it launched the culinary movie trend best represented by the likes of Babette’s Feast, Le Grand Chef, and Eat Drink Man Woman. It also predates the other great “noodle neo-western,” A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop. You will learn to respect and crave ramen in Juzo Itami’s newly 4K-restored Tampopo (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

While his partner Gorō drives, Gun reads a book of ramen reminisces that makes both of them hungry. Fatefully, they stop at Tampopo’s ramen restaurant. Frankly, her ramen is not very good, but Gorō rather enjoys her company. In fact, when a thuggish contractor creates a scene, Gorō two-fistedly settles it outside, despite being out-numbered. Thus, an ambiguously romantic friendship is born between Tampopo and her champion. As an unlikely ramen expert, he also starts coaching her in ways to improve her noodles and broth. Soon, he recruits a rag-tag team of specialists to lend their particular expertise and eccentricity.

In between Tampopo’s worst-to-first campaign, Itami intersperses loopy food-related interludes, including a scene involving a grocer stalking a serial produce-squeezer that plays like a send-up of the supermarket scene in Stallone’s Cobra, except Tampopo predates that film as well. Periodically, Itami returns to an unnamed Yakuza in hiding with his lover, whom he sexually relates to through food.

Like so many of the foodie movies that followed it, Tampopo definitely uses food as a metaphor for life and love. However, few films are as willing to be as randomly goofy as Itami’s ramen opera. Clearly, there are things that happen solely because Itami thought they were funny—which they were and still are. Arguably, he raises silliness to a high art form. It is hard to imagine a film like this making it through focus groups and studio note-writing screenings today, so it is enormously refreshing to have it back again.

Amid all the lunacy, Itami’s wife and muse Nobuko Miyamoto shines like an Ozu heroine as the title noodle purveyor. Tsutomu Yamazaki is wonderfully sly and hardnosed as Gorō, like a vintage Clint Eastwood. A ridiculously young looking Ken Watanabe adds earnest vigor as Gun, while a relatively youthful Kôji Yakusho becomes the symbolic face of the film as the Yakuza in the white suit. In fact, Tampopo is absolutely bursting at the seams with fine supporting performances, in both the main narrative and the periodic interludes.

You just can’t see films like this anymore, because screenwriters now all read the same books that tell them how to structure a script, literally beat-for-beat. Tampopo breaks all the rules and it is a much richer viewing experience as a result. The humor is often outrageous, but it holds up quite well over the years and crossing cultures. It is funny, but it is also acutely human. Indeed, there are good reasons why so many ramen restaurants were renamed “Tampopo” after the film released internationally. Highly recommended for culinary movie fans and Nipponophiles, the 4K restoration of Tampopo opens this Friday (10/21) in New York, at Film Forum.

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NYFF ’16: The Lost City of Z

Col. Percival Fawcett was like Harry Faversham in The Four Feathers, except it was his breeding that was suspect rather than his courage. There was nothing Fawcett could do to change his lineage, so he definitely believes he has something to prove. As Fawcett sees it, the Amazonian rain forest is the place to do it. He will return several times to continue his obsessive search for a mythical fallen civilization in James Gray’s adaptation of the bestselling nonfiction narrative The Lost City of Z, which screened as the closing night selection of the 54th New YorkFilm Festival.

If you had to share a foxhole with an officer, Fawcett would a good choice. He would certainly seem to be part of the privileged class in today’s world, but not enough so for his contemporaries. Consequently, he has no medals to show for his lifetime of military service. Fawcett keenly feels such slights, so he embraces the opportunity offered by an attachment to a Royal Geographical Society’s mapping expedition in Bolivia. Although things turn dire rather quickly, Fawcett and his comrades Henry Costin and Arthur Manley will successfully complete their objective. Along the way, Fawcett picks up the scent of an ancient fallen city buried within the jungle. It might just be the fabled El Dorado, but Fawcett prefers to call it Z (or rather the British “Zed”).

Fawcett will return with subsequent expeditions hoping to find Z and the glory that would come with it. Unfortunately, the money for his second campaign comes with participation of his benefactor, alleged explorer James Murray, whose girth and sloth weighs down the party like an anchor. Meanwhile, Nina Fawcett waits patiently at home with their increasingly resentful eldest son Jack.

Naturally, Gray goes to ridiculous lengths to suggest Fawcett was more culturally sensitive and humane than your average colonial glory-hunter. Frankly, it feels like a case of protesting too much, but at least it doesn’t waterlog the on-screen adventure.

The sweeping visual scale and lush, shot-on-location backdrops represent a welcome throwback to epic filmmaking in the tradition of David Lean and Alexander Korda. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (who also lensed The City of Lost Children) fully capitalizes on the verdant vistas, probably setting himself up for a second Oscar nomination. Yet, Gray and company show more interest in the Fawcetts’ private family life than Henry Hathaway allowed for the Bengal Lancer.

Charlie Hunnam is clearly comfortable returning to his Northern English roots as Fawcett. Despite his limited range, he nicely conveys the human foibles driving Fawcett’s manic compulsion. Likewise, Sienna Miller teases out a fully dimensional portrait of his loyal (but maybe not quietly so) wife Nina. Robert Pattinson (the Y-chromosome Jennifer Anniston) completely disappears into the role of flinty Henry Costin to an admirable and almost shocking extent. Yet it is Angus Macfadyen (Robert the Bruce in Braveheart) who really supplies the X-Factor as Murray, Fawcett’s appropriately flamboyant antagonist.

It is strange to imagine a reasonably proper British officer slogging through the South American rain forest, but Gray adeptly positions him as an inspirational tragic figure rather than the cautionary sort. He also recreates the horrors of WWI just as well as anything you will see in Testament of Youth. It is a good, solid historical tale of derring-do, but the fact that such films are now the preserve of private equity productions and film festival premieres rather than the Hollywood studio system (such as it is) happens to be rather depressing. Recommended as a sweaty, slightly Conradian cinematic outing, The Lost City of Z is due to open in April 2017, after screening as the closing film of the 2016 NYFF.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brooklyn Horror ’16: Child Eater

When notorious serial killer Robert Bowery hatched the macabre idea to ingest the eyes of children to reverse his chronic ocular deterioration, it spurred a series of ritualistic murders that deeply scarred the upper Midwestern community. Not to be encouraging or condoning, but it apparently worked, considering he is not effectively immortal and darned near omniscient. People now like to think Bowery is just an urban legend (albeit of a distinctly rural variety), but a baby-sitter and her charge are about to learn otherwise in Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Child Eater (trailer here), the feature fix-up of his 2012 short film, which screens during the inaugural Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Matthew Parker just bought the old Bowery house, obviously because the price was right. Naturally, he didn’t tell his son Lucas anything, but of course the boy can run a google search, so he probably knows more than his dad. Frankly, Helen Connolly was not in the mood to babysit the creepy Parker kid, but her father the sheriff volunteered her anyway. Unfortunately, she dismisses his concerns about scary noises until Bowery has already abducted him right under her nose. Motivated by a sense of guilt and genuine concern, Connolly heads into the woods after them, dragging her disposable boyfriend with her.

Eater has the distinction of being an Icelandic and American co-production, but there is nothing that particularly distinguishes the film from a legion of similar horror movies built around Candyman-style bogeymen. In this case, Bowery’s backstory somewhat creepier than usual. Thoroddsen also displays a nice touch with the interpersonal relationships, particularly Connolly’s friendship with Casey, her gay best friend, who just started working as her father’s newest deputy. As the rookie law officer, Brandon Smalls is indeed the standout of the competent but not especially memorable cast.

Thoroddsen adroitly maintains a sense of mounting dread and cinematographer John Wakayama Carey gives it an exquisitely eerie look, but it is hard to keep invested in a film when you know the evilness will always get the final word. It earns some style points, but we have gone this wooded path many, many times before (it is safe to say Thoroddsen does not opt for the road less traveled by). Okay, but not great, Child Eater screens tonight (10/16) as part of the 2016 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

NYFF ’16: Julieta

We stereotypically think of Spaniards as the hot-blooded types and Canadians as being rather unassuming and vanilla, but fishing is important to both nations. That might not sound like much of a shared bond, but it allows Pedro Almodóvar to transpose Alice Munro’s three interconnected short stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” from Canada to Spain. In the process, he gives the Sirkian stories a Hitchcockian tinge, not unlike his 2011 film The Skin I Live In, in which the story collection Runaway briefly appears, Easter Egg-like. Not merely poised the verge of a nervous breakdown, the title character will often teeter over the brink in Almodóvar’s Julieta (trailer here), which screens during the 54th New York Film Festival.

Julieta Arcos’s flashbacks will start when she chances across a friend of her long lost grown daughter Antía, who off-handedly mentions running into the missing woman on the streets of Madrid. Just when Arcos had agreed to leave town with her eternally patient gentleman friend, she finds reason to stay and carry on her fruitless search. With the help of a little wine, Arcos drifts back to when she first met Antía’s father Xoan as a fellow passenger on a romantic but somewhat tragic sleeper train.

Obviously, there were sparks, but Xoan’s comatose first wife made long-term commitment rather awkward. Nonetheless, Arcos will eventually seek out the commercial fisherman, fatefully arriving a day after the inconvenient spouse’s funeral. The heat is still there, but Julieta will also meet Ava, Xoan’s platonic best friend, except possibly with benefits. Lingering questions regarding their relationship will lead to tragedy, which in turn contributes to Antía’s extreme decision to sever all ties to her mother.

Although not a thriller per se, Almodóvar deliberately emphasizes all the mysterious elements, like the deliberately missing person, an unfortunate death on the tracks, and all the romantically noir elements of strangers meeting on a train. Even Adriana Ugarte hairstyle as the young commuting Juliet looks inspired by Melanie Griffith in Body Double. Clearly composer Alberto Iglesias got the memo, because he definitely tries to channel Bernard Hermann.

Frankly, the richness and sure-handedness of Almodóvar’s visual style is just of pleasure to behold. He and cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu give the film a vibrant color-noir look, in the tradition of Marnie. Yet, the grounded credibility of the linked narrative makes the third story alienation quite disturbing.

As the younger Julieta, Ugarte rocks her 1980s dew and generally dominates the screen with a dangerous mix of seductiveness and naivety. As the older Arcos, Emma Suárez is vividly and viscerally guilt-ridden and neurotic, but also rather stately and distinguished. Yet, both will implode quite spectacularly, as befits Almodóvarian heroines.

Despite its “women’s fiction” source material, Julieta is definitely more closely akin to Almodóvar’s Skin and Broken Embraces. Yet of the three said films, this is arguably the most accomplished. Darkly glossy, Julieta should well satisfy Almodóvar’s admirers and serve as an effective introductive to his themes and motifs for new viewers. Highly recommended, Julieta screens again tomorrow night (10/16) during the 2016 NYFF, with a return trip already booked for late December.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Asura: The City of Madness—Hwang Jung-min Unleashes his Inner Mayor Daley

In the U.S., they say there is even more corruption on the local governmental level than the Federal, because that is where all land use decisions are made. The same seems to be true in Korean—and Mayor Park Sung-bae is glad of it. He is determined to get all the prime cuts from a plan to redevelopment a former U.S. military base in fictional Annam. Of course, he has plenty of other nefarious side businesses, including a large meth dealing operation. For years, Det. Han Do-kyung has done the mayor’s dirty work, but an ambitious prosecutor will force him to either double down or turn state’s evidence in Kim Sung-soo’s spectacularly cynical Asura: The City of Madness (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In his world-weary voice-overs, Han refers to himself as the mayor’s “gun-dog.” He means it the way it sounds. Having done some pretty despicable things for his boss (who also happens to be his cancer-stricken wife’s half-brother), Han is poised to accept a position in City Hall as his reward. Unfortunately, things fall apart rapidly when an equally venal but less connected fellow cop interrupts him paying off the junkie who recently kidnapped a witness against the mayor. During the resulting scuffle, Han accidentally kills the crooked copper, forcing him to frame his drug-addled lackey to save himself.

To further complicate Han’s life, prosecutor Kim Cha-in starts blackmailing Han to inform on Park. Facing his wife’s impending mortality has made Han remorseful for choosing the crooked path. However, he can tell Kim is no Fritz Bauer or Rudy Giuliani. In fact, he might be just as ruthless and sociopathic as Park.

Asura (rather poetically named after constantly warring Buddhist demigods) makes recent Korean political corruption thrillers like Inside Men and A Violent Prosecutor look like The Smurfs. No mere ward-heeler, Mayor Park is practically the Devil incarnate. Of course, the flamboyantly devious pol is totally in Hwang Jung-min’s wheelhouse. He gleefully gobbles down the scenery and delivers insanely villainous pronouncements like Mussolini on the balcony. In contrast, Jung Woo-sung is relatively restrained, but watching the cumulative punishment of all the smack-downs he endures also represents quite a compelling performance, but one of a wholly different order.

Amidst this world of shady characters, Kwak Do-won also stands out as the cold-blooded Kim Cha-in. If you are looking for subtlety here, your best bet is Jeong Man-sik, who brings some finer gradations to Do Chang-hak, Kim’s lead investigator, at least when he is not beating on poor, degraded Det. Han.

Tight, tense, and bracing like iced black coffee, Asura could be the least sentimental film of the year. Kim Sung-soo never gives viewers anyplace to hide, but he pays them off with third act mayhem worthy of Johnnie To at the top of his game. Very highly recommended for action and procedural fans, Asura: The City of Madness opens today (10/14) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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